So what’s so special about Laos – it’s the people, the culture and the experiences that go beyond all expectations. Laos is still unspoilt – a less touristed and relatively undiscovered country packed with beautiful scenery, relaxed and friendly people, great food and stunning sights. It has a long and fascinating history of royalty, occupation and struggle for independence, awe inspiring ‘vats’ (temples) and a unique mix of French colonial and traditional architecture.
While some may have concerns that Laos is still developing and is relatively new to the travel scene when compared with some of its more developed neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam, in the major centers there is a range of accommodation and facilities to suit all tastes. Although it may yet have reached true ‘International’ standards, Laos has something more to offer… a hospitality and warmth that more than make amends.
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Location and Geography
Laos is a land-locked country located in mainland South-East Asia with a total land area of approximately 237,000 square kilometres, and is bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Most of the country is very densely forested with rugged mountains, and consequently less than 5% of Laos is considered as arable. The Mekong River is known as the ‘lifeblood’ of the country and it flows almost the entire length of Laos, forming most of the western border with Thailand. The mountains of the Annamite Chain form most of the eastern border with Vietnam.
Laos’ main cities, including Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet, are all located along the mighty Mekong River. Fishing is therefore a very important activity for many Laotians and provides a vital source of protein for local people. Hydropower, mining and timber are the main industries, and more recently the tourism industry has started to become significant. With this recent development the environment has not been forgotten – in 1993 the Lao government allocated about 21% of the nation’s land area for preservation.
Administratively Laos is divided into 16 provinces and 1 capital city district. The total population of Laos is approximately 6 million people, and about 70% of the population lives away from the main towns and cities in the rural areas. With a population density of only about 23 people per square kilometre, it is one of the least densely populated countries in East Asia. An estimated 131 different ethnic groups can be found in Laos, which have been broadly categorized into 3 main groups according to linguistic and ethnic as well as to geographic criteria. The largest of these groups with about two thirds of the population is known as the ‘lowland Lao’, or Lao Loum.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, a Neolithic race known as the Hoa Binh spread through most of Southeast Asia including Laos, and over time developed agricultural skills including rice cultivation to supplement their hunting, fishing and gathering. They are said to be the ancestors of the present day Khmu people, a Lao Theung (‘upland Lao’) ethnic group who are known as the indigenous people of Laos. The first known kingdom in what is today Southern Laos had is capital nearby Champassak and dated from around the 5th Century – it was known as the Chenla by the Chinese. Other kingdoms were later founded by Mon peoples in South and Central Laos, including kingdoms near the location of present day Tha Khaek and Vientiane.
Between the 7th and 10th Centuries, the Tai people began migrating south from their ancestral homeland in Southern China, into the northern areas of Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Laos. Settling along the fertile river valleys they practiced wet rice cultivation and were organized into a type of principality system with each ruled by a local leader as a sort of ‘city state’. Gradually their settlements were established further south along the river valleys in Laos. Muang Sua was the name given to what is presently Luang Prabang, following its conquest in the late 7th Century by Tai people.
By the 13th Century many of these small ‘kingdoms’ or principalities in Laos had been conquered or came under the control of the powerful Khmer Empire of Jayavarman VII, and in Central and Northern Laos were being brought under the control of the emerging Sukhothai Kingdom.
Lan Xang Kingdom
Fa Ngum, a Laotian Prince who had been exiled into Cambodia from a young age and had married a daughter of the Khmer King, set out from Khmer territory in the mid-14th Century with a large army to re-gain control of the parts of Laos which had fallen to the Sukhothai. In 1354 he was crowned King of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol) Kingdom in Vientiane and the first unified Lao Kingdom was formed. The Kingdom extended from the border of China to Southern Laos near Don Khong (nearby the present Cambodian border), and during that period was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom of Lan Xang remained largely unified and powerful over the following centuries, fighting off invasions from Vietnam, Siam and Burma until the early 18th Century, when Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak separated into three separate kingdoms as a result of internal divisions and power struggles.
Divided Kingdoms, Foreign Control and Independence
The division of the previous Lan Xang Kingdom into three smaller separate kingdoms left them vulnerable to the more powerful neighbouring kingdoms, and by the late 18th Century all three of the Lao Kingdoms had surrendered to Siam. An attempted rebellion against Siamese rule by the Vientiane Kingdom in the early 19th Century led to the city being sacked, with only Wat Sisaket was spared from destruction, and to harsher Siamese controls over all three of the Lao Kingdoms.
The French had now started to emerge in the region, declaring Cambodia a protectorate in the mid 19th Century, and were making expeditions into the Lao Kingdoms. In 1893 the French were able to force the Siamese to sign a treaty conceding all territories east of the Mekong River to French control and Laos became a French colony. During World War II the French position in Indochina was weakened, and in 1945 Laos came under brief control of the Japanese and independence was declared. With the end of the war following shortly afterwards the Japanese surrendered and a Lao Government was formed. The French returned to Indochina shortly after, sending the new Lao Government into exile, however in October 1953 France granted Laos full independence.
The following two decades saw Laos caught up in the ensuing power struggles and conflicts in Indochina, and within Laos the struggles for control between Lao Communists (‘Pathet Lao’) and Lao Royalists led to the increasing involvement of both the US and North Vietnamese in Lao affairs. Laos became a ‘sideshow’ for the more well known battles that were being fought in Vietnam during the Second Indochina War (or ‘American War’).
The fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon to the Communists in 1975 signaled the end of the war in Indochina. The Pathet Lao liberated the country from Royal control and American influence – the Lao King abdicated power signaling the end of the monarchy in Laos and in December 1975 the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established.
Art and Culture from Laos
“The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow…
The above saying, attributed to the French during colonial times, probably best sums most visitors’ impressions of Lao people and of their differences with their neighbours. Lao people are renowned for their laid-back nature and generally live a much slower paced way of life than those in surrounding countries. In Laos the very relaxed attitude and ‘baw pen nyang’ (no problems – it’ll be ok) approach is enchanting but may also take a little time for some foreigners to adapt to.
In Laos there is said to be between 45 to 140 (or even more – depending on the source) distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and customs. The Lao Government broadly categorizes the different ethnic groups into 3 main categories according to linguistic, ethnic and geographic criteria. Lao Loum (or lowland Lao) is the largest of these groups with approximately 65–70% of the population, followed by Lao Theung (upland Lao) with about 20% of the population and the remaining being designated as Lao Soung (highland Lao) including the H’mong people, who are perhaps the most well known of all the ethnic groups in Laos. Therefore the dominant culture in Laos is that of the Lao Loum who are Theravada Buddhists and speak the official Lao language as their mother tongue.
Theravada Buddhism has a prevailing influence on most aspects of the dominant Lao culture, including the art, architecture, performing arts and literature. Lao classical music, dance and drama owes its origins to the ceremonial performances for the former Laotian Royal Courts and is often based on the Ramayana, however Lao folk music (lam) and folk dance has traditionally been more popular amongst the general population. The national instrument is a type of pipe made of bamboo known as the khaen which is believed to have pre-historic origins and is still commonly used in folk music and even in Laotian pop music today.
Weaving is widely practiced throughout Laos, mostly by women, and there are distinct weaving techniques in the different geographic areas and amongst the different ethnic groups. There are more than 12 identified weaving styles in Laos and common designs include geometric patterns, temple motifs, and sometimes animals. In some ethnic groups the woven designs can depict a story or legend, for example stories of ancestors’ spirits, or stories of Nagas and their influences on life around them, with motifs inspired by nature and daily life. Woven items are often used as scarves, traditional skirts (sihn), blankets, and for household decoration and in some ethnic groups the females would traditionally weave items to form their dowry. Other traditional handicrafts include basket weaving, silver and gold smiting, and Saa paper handicrafts.
Family and Religion are of utmost importance to Lao people, with social activities traditionally centering on the extended family and the temple. It is said that for most Laotians a difficult occupation or a stressful life are not desired nor sought after. The majority of Lao citizen’s lives in villages or rural areas, and between 70–80% of the population still rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods – predominantly rice cultivation. As a result rice is the staple food and also has religious and cultural significance amongst the different ethnic groups, including some traditions and rituals related to its cultivation and its consumption.
The Lao people are friendly and receptive to foreigners and will usually welcome you very warmly. There is a healthy curiosity towards foreigners and visitors may find themselves frequently engaged in conversation unexpectedly or at the centre of attention!
Religion and Beliefs in Laos
Within Laos approximately 60-70% of the population are said to be Theravada Buddhists, with the remaining population largely following Animism in the form of spirit (phii) worship. Less than 2% of the populations are Christians and there are small communities of Moslems mostly in Vientiane.
Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Laos during the 13th or 14th Century, and is believed to be the oldest form of Buddhism that originally developed in India. It is based on the four noble truths that Lord Buddha had realised in order to become enlightened, and this school of Buddhism emphasizes the cooling of human passions (‘cool heart’) and strong emotions, with followers strongly believing in karma.
Traditionally in Laos every Buddhist male is expected to join a temple (Wat) to become a monk for a period in his life, and the entire family earns ‘merit’ for this act. In Laos Buddhism followers also gain merit by making donations and worshipping at the Wats, and by the daily feeding of the monks. The ‘tak bat’ in Luang Prabang – where a multitude of monks walk the streets in a silent line collecting alms from the local people very early each morning, is one of the most enduring memories for visitors to Laos.
Spirit (phii) worship is also widely followed by large numbers of Laotians, especially amongst the ethnic minority groups, and in fact most Lao Buddhists also incorporate elements of spirit worship into their practice of religion and their daily lives. Phii are believed to inhabit natural objects, and their worship pre-dates Buddhism in Laos. Ornately decorated ‘spirit houses’ are often placed outside Lao homes, where residents make offerings to keep the spirits content. A very common belief in Laos is of the 32 spirits (khwan) which are guardians over different parts of a person’s body and mind. The ‘Baci’ ceremony is a reflection of this and is a distinctly Laotian ritual which plays a very important role even today for most Lao people to welcome or farewell, bring good luck and ward of bad spirits for any major event in the life of local people.